Poetry has a very close relationship to sound. It’s one of the things that sets it apart from prose, which is often read internally; poetry changes so much when it’s performed out loud. With its long association with an oral tradition, with ballads and song, with rhythm, meter and rhyme, the very act of writing poetry becomes an act of engaging with sound.

‘Poetry begins in those situations where the voice has to be raised: the hawker has to make himself heard above the market hubbub, the knife-grinder has to call the cook out into the street, the storyteller has to address a whole village, the bard must command the admiration of the court. The voice has to be raised. And it is raised in rhythm.’ – James Fenton, An Introduction to English Poetry (London: Penguin Books, 2003)

I actually ran a school workshop about poetry and sound just the other week. I was working with my regular group of Yr 4 pupils at St Patrick’s School in Workington, where we looked at John Clare’s poem, ‘Pleasant Sounds’. We talked about Clare’s use of ‘sound words’ (such as ‘pattering’ and ‘whizzing’), and about how some of the sound words he used were unexpected, like ‘flirt’ and ‘halloos’. Then the children thought about a favourite place, and wrote about all the different sounds they could hear in that place.

Which brings me onto this month’s challenge:

Write about the next sound you hear.

It could be a large sound, or a very small one. Whatever it is, I want you to focus on it. Describe it in as much detail as you can.

Start by describing the sound itself – what are the best words for the sound you can hear? Is it loud or quiet? Does it invade your ears, or do you really have to strain to hear it? Is it continuous, or short and sharp like a puncture?

Then expand the picture out from there. What’s making the sound? Can you see it? What does it look like? Whatever’s making it: does it change as it makes the sound? How does it affect the other sounds around it? How does it affect you? Does it remind you of something else? Another time you heard it, perhaps, or something else that makes a similar noise?

The trick with this exercise is focus. Focus all your energy and attention on that one sound, and let the detail fill the words.

As always, I’d love to see the results. Good luck, and happy writing!

I like to write in cafes. I’ll be honest: that’s largely because I have a fondness for cake, and scones, and hot chocolate with marshmallows. And because coffee can be a great way to wake up the writing bits of the brain.

But it’s also about the cafe as a creative space. Writing can be such a lonely pursuit that it can be easy to feel isolated. For me, cafes represent a half-way house between the solitary and the social. In a cafe, it’s possible to be alone and yet in the middle of a bustling crowd. The perfect set-up for people watching.

So that’s my task for this writing prompt:

Sit in a cafe & eat cake.

Ok, the cake bit is optional, but the real purpose of sitting in the cafe is to people watch. Pick somebody you don’t know – whether it’s a customer or a member of staff – and write about them. Write their portrait, write their fictional back story, write about where they might live, write about the conversation you overhear, write about yourself in relation to them. It’s up to you what you write, but here’s the catch: your piece of writing should be finished by the time you’ve finished your tea / coffee / hot chocolate with marshmallows, whipped cream & a flake.

And I know, ‘a poem is never finished, only abandoned.’ And you can always come back to it later. But for the purposes of this exercise, it’s all about forcing you to write, rather than sitting and looking at the blank page. And I always find that a time limit is one of the best ways to do that.

Good luck!

Oh, and if you’re in Cumbria, here are my top 5 Cumbrian cafes for writing in.

Poetry can be about anything. In many ways, that’s a huge advantage. It gives you freedom to explore any subject that interests you, and to view it through whatever frame seems appropriate. As I like to tell children in my schools workshops, there are no rules in poetry.

But all those options can be a little bit daunting. You know that feeling when you’re looking at a menu and there’s too much to choose from, it’s overwhelming, and suddenly you don’t want to eat anything at all? Sometimes I feel a bit like that about poetry.

So I thought I’d create a prompt that restricts that slightly.

Your goal? To write about something blue.

It can be anything you like – big, small, bright blue, sky blue, azure, navy… Maybe a poem about a shallow coral sea, or the depths of the Pacific. Perhaps the sky on a summer day, or a swimming pool in a fancy hotel. Or maybe it’s a smaller object: a blue bottle, a favourite pair of denim dungarees, bathroom tiles. Perhaps you want to write about blueness in the figurative sense, about being blue, or playing the blues.

Whatever you choose, start with the object and its blueness. Continue writing from there, and see where the poem takes you.

As always, I’d love to see anything you come up with.

Good luck, and happy writing!

This month I’ve been thinking quite a lot about list poems. I’ve been running more workshops than usual in primary schools, and list poems are always a good tool for getting to know a class of children, how well they work, and their writing ability. They also provide a useful structure onto which the children can graft their own ideas and imagination.

They can also be a pretty good writing tool for adults, too. 

I’ve also been teaching in a couple of Catholic primary schools, which has had me thinking about biblical language. As a child, I went to Sunday School most weekends, and I’ve spent a lot of years singing in church and chapel choirs. I’ve always loved the language of church services, particularly Catholic and high Church of England. It’s a heightened language, and there’s a kind of poetry to it. It’s full of repetition, for one thing. 

Take the Apostle’s Creed: 

I BELIEVE in God, the Father almighty,
creator of heaven and earth.

I believe in Jesus Christ, his only Son, our Lord.
He was conceived by the power of the Holy Spirit
and born of the Virgin Mary.

He suffered under Pontius Pilate,
was crucified, died, and was buried.

He descended to the dead.
On the third day he rose again.
He ascended into heaven,
and is seated at the right hand of the Father.
He will come again to judge the living and the dead.

I believe in the Holy Spirit,
the holy catholic Church,
the communion of saints,
the forgiveness of sins,
the resurrection of the body,
and the life everlasting.

Amen.

There’s the repetition of ‘I believe’, the repetition of ‘He…’ (He was conceived / He descended to the dead / He ascended into heave), and then the repeated structure of the final section. 

Part of the purpose of this repetition is surely to make the creed more memorable, but it also provides emphasis. 

So that’s my task for you. This month, I’d like to you write your own creed. 

It doesn’t need to be religious. You might believe that little green aliens landed in 19th century Paris and were responsible for building the Eiffel Tower. Or you might believe in love at first sight. Or that the cup of coffee you’re drinking right at this moment is the best cup of coffee in the entire world – or the worst. 

Whatever you believe, I’d like you to write about it. Set it down. Speak it out. Proclaim it to the hills. 

Good luck! 

Writing prompt - Katie Hale, Cumbrian writer

From beginnings last month, to endings…

This month’s writing prompt is about writing to a constraint. For me, some of my favourite writing has come from not being able to write completely freely. A good example of this is form.

‘Writing free verse is like playing tennis with the net down.’ – Robert Frost

I’m not sure I fully agree with this quote by Robert Frost, as I think writing free verse carries its own challenges and subtleties. But I know what he means.

Sometimes, witing to a form can force you to raise your game. It forces you to take the poem in a different direction. If you can’t find a word that says what you want to say and still fits the form, then you have to say something different. Form can push you outside of your comfort zone, and force you to think outside the box.

(It’s actually the same reason I often won’t let my school groups write rhyming poetry, when I want them to focus more on freeing their imagination.)

writing prompt - Katie Hale

This prompt isn’t to use a traditional form, but it hopefully it will bring out something different and unexpected in your writing.

Write a poem using the end-words from a different poem.

Take another poem (by somebody else) as your starting point. Try to make it a contemporary poem that you don’t already know, so that you’re not constantly thinking of the original poem while you’re trying to write your own.

Don’t read the original poem; just write down the last word of each line.

Then, write your own poem, ‘filling in the gaps’. What you should end up with are two completely different poems (the original and your own), but with the same words ending their lines.

Obviously, once you’ve done this exercise, you can rewrite your poem and remove any of those end-words that really don’t belong, and edit your poem as normal.

Your original poem can be any contemporary poem (try to avoid anything too old, as you may get stuck with some anachronistic ‘thou’ and ‘thee’ language). But if you’re struggling to find one, here’s a suggestion:

Window, by Peter Dale

And if you don’t want to see the rest of the poem, the line endings are as follows:

gaze
seem
sun
it
mist
her
look
love
face
pass
sun
child
hers
personal

Good luck! I’d love to see any / hear which poems you chose. Comments in the boxes below 🙂

Happy New Year!

When I was running Rabbit Rabbit (rabbit) young writers’ group, I used to send the young writers a writing prompt every week. I missed doing it, so I’m going to share a writing prompt as part of my weekly (weekend-ly) blog posts. I’m not Jo Bell, and this isn’t 52, so I’m going to share one a month rather than one a week: the first Sunday of every month.

And because this is January and it’s the first one, I thought I’d share a prompt about beginnings.

writing prompt - Katie Hale

If you think about famous novels, there are probably at least a few whose opening lines come to mind. Which makes sense – the beginning of a book is the part that’s supposed to grab us and make us want to read further.

For me, a good opening to a book is one that draws me in. It’s one that raises questions, or suggests a struggle that needs to be resolved. Sometimes it puts us right in the middle of the drama, straight away.

Take these examples – which, because we’re still within the festive season, I’ve done as a quiz (answers at the bottom of the post):

QUIZ:

  1. ‘It was a cold day in April and the clocks were striking thirteen.’
  2. ‘Marley was dead, to begin with.’
  3. ‘When he woke in the woods in the dark and the cold of the night he’d reach out to touch the child sleeping beside him.’
  4. ‘He was an old man who fished alone in a skiff in the Gulf Stream and he had gone eighty-four days now without taking a fish.’
  5. ‘People are afraid to merge on freeways in Los Angeles.’
  6. ‘Lyra and her daemon moved through the darkening Hall, taking care to keep to one side, out of sight of the kitchen.’
  7. ‘When the doorbell rings at three in the morning, it’s never good news.’
  8. ‘It was love at first sight. The first time Yossarian saw the chaplain he fell madly in love with him.’
  9. ‘He was afraid to go to sleep. For three weeks, he had been afraid of going to sleep.’
  10. ‘The boys, as they talked to the girls from Marcia Blaine School, stood on the far side of their bicycles holding the handlebars, which established a protective fence of bicycle between the sexes, and the impression that at any moment the boys were likely to be away.’
  11. ‘It was the best of times. It was the worst of times.’
  12. ‘The boy with fair hair lowered himself down the last few feet of rock and began to pick his way towards the lagoon.’
  13. ‘They say it came first from Africa, carried in the screams of the enslaved.’
  14. ‘In my younger and more vulnerable years my father gave me some advice that I’ve been turning over in my mind ever since.’
  15. ‘Like most people I lived a long time with my mother and father. My father liked to watch the wrestling, my mother liked to wrestle.’

How many did you get? Answers at the bottom of the post…

*

Writing a gripping first sentence is all very well for the opening of a novel, which sets up plot and conflict and character and story. But what about poetry?

I wonder how many of us think about setting up conflict and character and story in the opening of a poem? I wonder how many of us write opening lines to grip people with the drama of the poem, the way we might in a novel?

So that’s my prompt:

Write an opening line for a poem, which sets up drama and / or mystery, and whose sole purpose is to grip the reader.

Then, and only then, you can try writing the rest of the poem.

Here are a few poems that I think grip the reader really well:

‘Here, Bullet’, by Brian Turner

‘Bird’, by Liz Berry

‘Kiss’, by Ruth Padel

Happy writing!


ANSWERS:

  1. Nineteen Eighty-Four, George Orwell
  2. A Christmas Carol, Charles Dickens
  3. The Road, Cormac McCarthy
  4. The Old Man and the Sea, Ernest Hemmingway
  5. Less Than Zero, Bret Easton Ellis
  6. Northern Lights, Philip Pullman
  7. Stormbreaker, Anthony Horowitz
  8. Catch 22, Joseph Heller
  9. Strange Meeting, Susan Hill
  10. The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, Muriel Spark
  11. A Tale of Two Cities, Charles Dickens
  12. Lord of the Flies, William Golding
  13. The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, Junot Diaz
  14. The Great Gatsby, F Scott Fitzgerald
  15. Oranges are not the Only Fruit, Jeanette Winterson